Canyon Tales
North Wash TR
by Mike Dallin

• Part I — Leprechaun •
March 16, 2002

We pretty much slept in. By the time we woke, the sun had crested over the slickrock ridges and domes to the east, and bathed the van in light. It was still damn cold though, not cold enough to see your breath, but cold enough to make you think twice about leaving your sleeping bag.

Dianne and I drove out from Boulder, Colorado the night before, pitched all of our gear onto the cold sand, set down a comfy mattress in the van, and threw our sleeping bags on top of it. Voila, instant camp.

I met Dianne the previous year, at an ACA rendezvous. She’s an incredibly strong climber and avid canyoneer, and she’s become a trusted climbing/canyoneering partner, and a good friend.

Sleep came quick, morning came groggily.

At first, not a cloud in the sky. Then, slowly, they appeared, sailing across the sky at high speed in what must be a tremendously brisk high altitude wind. Hoped it wouldn’t come any lower.

Sorted gear. Ate breakfast. Enough rope length? Who’s carrying the webbing? How much food/water? Sunblock?

Ah, ready to depart? Off to the right fork of Leprechaun, a three–forked canyon complex rediscovered and renamed by Shane Burrows a scant 6 months earlier. Other nearby canyons have spawned similar Irish–themed names. Blarney. Shillelagh. Sandthrax. Oh, wait...

Our camp spot was a nice grove of trees with plenty of fire rings to go around. Someone even left a box of scrap wood. Convenient. We gathered our gear and began our trek.

We found an inviting wash. We bashed through tamarisk and cattails. Occasionally we avoided small puddles of water, no need to get wet when it’s in the 30’s and who knows what weather is coming in.

Forecasters couldn’t agree on what was coming—rain, snow, four horseman of the apocalypse. But they agreed that *something* was coming.

The canyon narrowed, we reach a dark, dark slot, shaped like one of those old fashioned oil squirters. You know, the ones with a bulb on the end, and a long metal tube coming out? You push the bulb, which makes a neat metal popping sound (not unlike the safety seal on, say, a jar of jam), and a droplet of oil squirts out of the tube? One of those. Narrow slot above, small bulb–shaped crawl–way at ground level.

Dianne volunteered.

“Dark in here!” I can tell, she just entered and already I can’t see her. “I don’t know... wait, water!”

Yup, I ducked into the entrance and could now see the vague reflection of light off of water. Dianne crawled back out. We scoped above, we could probably stem up, but that doesn’t sound like the canyon that was described to us. We were obviously in the wrong place.

We consulted the map. Right fork of Leprechaun? This can’t be it.

Oh wait. We figured it out. We arrived late the night before, we turned off and camped in the wrong spot, a quarter mile further than the regular trailhead. No worries, looked like we could climb those slickrock slopes between ... wait, where are we? Oh cool, we were at the mouth of Sandthrax, Shane’s ‘Chasm of Doom’, so named because of his infamous (and occasionally controversial) epic. Neat canyon. Pretty.

We had our bearings. The topo told us we could follow the approach to Sandthrax, but instead of taking a right–hand turn into a search and rescue operation, we could turn left and hit the head of Lep’s right fork with ease.

And we did. Occasionally steep slickrock slopes turned into a flat mesa summit. We happily kicked down cairns leading to Sandthrax. No need to sucker people there. Crossed open desert, marveled at the occasional basalt block. Checked the maps, checked them again. Looked for a small point, 5003. Ah, now we know we’re in the right place. Walked to the head of the canyon, a nice headwall that we *could* rappel. But why? There was a walkdown route on the slopes between the middle and right fork. Yeah, well, it would drop us down a ways below where the slot starts in the right fork, but we could always hike back up and explore.

Beta point number one: you can drop into the canyon in the vicinity of point 5003. It will drop to a large shelf that is still well above the canyon floor. Hike along the shelf upcanyon to the headwall. Hop into the slot and have fun.

But we missed that. We hiked up the slot a ways, climbed and clambered. We finally reached a drop that must be climbed. We could do it—heck, Dianne was half–way up it in an instant—but just too much to risk. There are only two of us, one of us (clue: not Dianne) was a climbing wimp, and we were in a bad spot to break an ankle. We headed down canyon.

Another weather check before the deep slot canyon? Ah. Windy. Cloudy. Potentially crappy. Let’s go!

Scrambled, slid, sideways walked. We saw the occasional foot scrape on the wall, the 5.10 Canyoneer pattern footprint in the sand. Dianne even pointed out the pile scraped off of a previous descentionist’s clothing, engrained into the sandpaper wall. The canyon twisted and turned, and striated walls reflected the late morning sun into every hue of red imaginable.

The canyon contained what is known as a ‘mae west’ slot, that is, a section of canyon so narrow you can not fit. To get around such an obstacle, one must climb above the constriction, shimmy along using a technique known as ‘stemming’, then climb back to the canyon floor once the canyon widens. Conventional wisdom states that stemming is required in this particular canyon, and the hapless stemmer will normally find themselves as much as 20 feet off of the ground before the canyon widens. Strangely, Dianne and I never found this, our feet rarely left the ground level. We congratulated ourselves for our thin physiques, and carried on.

Soon ... a drop. Not a large one, perhaps 25 to 30 feet. A mass of webbing around a boulder signaled the need to rappel. Dianne examined the anchor closely, ensured the new looking webbing was safely placed and structurally sound. She examined the boulder closely. As we do at every rappel, we critiqued the anchor placement, and tossed around ideas to improve on the anchor. Satisfied, Dianne clipped in and rappelled. After she was off of the rope, I clipped in and began my descent. All the while, I heard a constant “Wow... amazing... this place is so... *beautiful*... ” coming from downcanyon. Dianne had already turned the corner, but I could still hear her.

I finished the rappel. I pulled the rope ... stuck! Ah, shoot, I knew that quarter–inch quicklink on the anchor would cause problems. I pulled this way, that way ... gave it a great YANK ... ah, it pulled. I recoiled it and hurried to Dianne.

She was basked in a small patch of sunlight. Around her, on the sinuous walls, were carved ... names. Names of previous visitors, some worn, some fresh. And below the names, dates. Dates as far back as 1968! At least a dozen names. One even had four dates underneath it; this person had obviously returned. This canyon had seen many human visitors over the years, and here was the proof. Kudos to them for visiting, shame on them for carving their names.

Dianne and I talked about this. Where were these people now? What would they say if we tracked them down and complained? Is the married couple who visited in 1972—obviously in love—still happily married?

We checked the time. Still early ... let’s explore! The dark defile of Lep’s main fork looked inviting. We left our packs, I grabbed my camera and a headlamp, and up we went, Dianne first.

We started up the narrow slot, walking sideways, barely enough room to turn our heads ... and ... cramp! Oh ouch, my thigh was cramped! I shimmied back out to the sunny patch, and furiously messaged my aching leg. Dianne called back, concerned, I told her I would catch up.

“Bananas. You need to eat more bananas!”

Check that. I hate bananas.

After a few minutes, I was back squeezing and shimmying. Back into darkness, over chokestones, under boulders. The canyon leaned, and I had to lean with it. Soon enough, the canyon opened, and we reached the junction of Lep’s main and left forks. What looked inviting? The main fork looked dark and narrow, the left fork open. We went for the left fork.

A bit of hiking, then scrambling, then a small dryfall. We tried to climb, but as with the short climb near the top of the right fork, decided not to do anything risky. We will return another day from the top and enjoy it then.

We hiked back to the main fork, then continued up. More tight squeezes, then a brief opening. Soon, another tight squeeze. Dianne slowly made her way up, but was stopped by a basketball sized chockstone. She found the spot too awkward and cramped to bend her legs and begin a stem. She backed out, and we tried to stem above. We made some distance, then dropped back down—a lot of exertion. Stemming upwards is harder than stemming downwards. We decided to visit this spot from the top another day, as well. But ah, I just couldn’t give it up.

I chimneyed down to the basketball chockstone, and wormed my way underneath. Back on the other side, I contorted my body in a rather unnatural way to lift my leg up, allowing me to bend my knee and stem. I imagined it was not pretty to look at, and certainly felt pain and tension on my abused joints, but it worked. I was able to stem up, and the canyon widened just enough for me to shimmy sideways. I headed up canyon, sideways and slow, and soon Dianne was out of sight around a curve. I continued on. The route was easy because of my nonexistent girth. After a few minutes of sideways walking, I reached another chockstone, two feet above the ground. I couldn’t go above it, the canyon was too narrow. I backed up. then lied down on my side and started crawling—sideways—underneath the small stone. My back was flush against the wall, my stomach was pressed against the opposite side whenever I inhaled. I could tell the sand beneath was recently under water. It was cold and slimy, and was mashing itself into my skin, into my clothing. It was slippery and it smelled like a cess pool. Using my best caving techniques (which aren’t that great), I slowly pushed myself upcanyon.

Once past the chockstone, I reached up and used it for leverage, pushing myself even further. I could hear my feet scraping against the wall, all the while unable to see what I could use for purchase. Soon I was past the chockstone, and with some effort, I stood up again. I continued my sideways walk, and the canyon opened up at a small rockfall. Beyond, more narrows. I looked back, quiet, and tried to hear if Dianne was following. All was silent. I started back, reversed my move under the chockstone. All I could think of was a story of a caver back east who, decades ago, was contorting his body in a narrow passage when a chicken–bone–sized rock lodged him in. Rescuers tried for days to free him, but he eventually died. Would I make it through? Would my camera—strapped around me—substitute for a chicken–bone–sized rock? If I got stuck, would Dianne get Dean Kurtz (SAR member in the next county over) to help get my sorry butt out, and if so, would he gleefully brag about my predicament on the internet? Yeah, probably. I tried really hard not to get stuck, and soon reversed the move. More shimmying and contorting, and I was back with Dianne.

“It was strange,” she said. “I could hear you moving away, the sound of your scrambling and scraping getting quieter and quieter. Then silence, then a few minutes later I could hear it get louder and louder.”

Scraping. That’s a good word for it. Lots of new holes in my clothes and scrape marks on my body. That and I stank like pothole scum. Dianne, not one to like tight squeezes, wisely stayed behind. I should’ve followed her lead.

It was time to go. We headed back to the carved names, grabbed our packs, and headed downcanyon. It was a pretty spot, but the wind picked up dramatically. We quickly found another sunny patch and enjoyed a brief lunch. Then, quickly to warm ourselves through exertion, we continued downcanyon, into the sandy wash, and eventually to the road. Yes, we confirmed we started at the wrong place. A quarter mile walk down the road, and we were back at the car.

But it was still early, around 2:30. Not wanting to sit in camp for hours in the daylight, we plotted a short afternoon adventure ...

• Part II — Death Canyon •
March 16, 2002

It was 2:30 in the afternoon, much too early to sit in camp, but too late for a long, drawn out adventure. So, what to do? Dianne noticed a few days earlier a nearby drainage called ‘Death Canyon.’ Sounded pleasant to us both. Let’s explore it, she reasoned. No ropes, no heavy packs, just walk up and see what there is to see. Don’t have to ask me twice.

The Colorado Plateau has several canyons with Dante–esque names, conjuring images of fire and brimstone, morbidity and torture. And strangely, these places seem to attract canyoneers. What explorer of technical terrain wouldn’t want to see why a canyon is saddled with such a monicker?

And you can’t get much more Dante–esque than ‘Death Canyon.’ Looked good on the maps. Dianne and I decided to give it a go. We quickly packed the van, studied the topos, and drove.

Death Canyon has a few interesting fins at its mouth, and these became our landmarks to ensure we were in the right place. Parking was scarce, and our first attempt resulted in a bit of skidding through soft sand, so Dianne parked with one wheel on the paved shoulder—just in case.

The wind picked up, and we donned windbreakers. Our packs were light, just essentials and some water. We carried no ropes or technical gear. In fact, we didn’t even wear our trusty 5.10 Canyoneers, opting instead for more comfortable hiking attire.

The route was obvious—we followed the wash, through increasingly vertical slickrock domes and walls. Near the mouth of the canyon we found the bones of a large animal, probably a cow, scattered amongst the brush and sand. Morbid jokes about the bone’s significance in ”Death Canyon” abounded as we dodged the occasional pile of cow manure.

The canyon was easy walking, but very sandy. Not the kind of sand you played in and dug up in your sandbox as a kid, this stuff was fine grained, like what you would see in an hourglass. Occasional gusts of wind—emanating from what must have been a serious storm over the Henry Mountains—kicked up the sand and swirled it around us. Our clothing and exposed hands and faces were red from the sand; our eyes burned from the constant deluge. In fact, after some serious wind in Leprechaun earlier in the day, Dianne abandoned her contacts for her glasses.

We continued up the canyon. The walls—layers of sandstone folded and faulted—were an interesting geology lesson. At one point the walls sloped to form a large overhang/cave. The occasional leaf–less cottonwood tree added to the ‘death’ theme quite nicely.

After 20 minutes or so, we were stopped by a dryfall, perhaps 15 to 20 feet high, with a small pool at the bottom. At the base, in the mud, were somewhat fresh 5.10 Canyoneer footprints. Looking up the fall, we could see a narrow slot disappearing around a corner. It didn’t look particularly deep, but was certainly narrow and dark. Dianne checked the time. It was early enough to warrant a look down the slot from the rim. We backtracked, intent on finding a route up.

We didn’t go far. On the right (looking downcanyon), only a short distance from the dryfall, was a viable route. Viable, but scary. It involved a mantle onto a ledge with loose dirt, then a short and slightly exposed walk along a ledge covered in loose dirt and sand. Handholds were few and far between, and balance was critical. As always, Dianne climbed up with no problems, I on the other hand lumbered along to find the most psychologically safe route. The ledges led to a bench, and another bouldering move or two led to the next set of ledges, and finally, the rim.

We hiked along the rim, and peered into the slot below. The part above the dryfall was dark and narrow, and we couldn’t see into it.

The canyon above continued somewhat narrow, but not particularly deep. We could see the sandy bottom from our perch, perhaps 50 feet below.

Soon we reached the first drainage entering from the north. It looked promising as a sliding descent route, but we were unsure if we could climb back out that way—and didn’t want to try, without first locating another escape route close by. We explored the next two side drainages up. The first, which was littered with large piles of basalt laid in patterns atop the slickrock, only offered a 10–foot sheer drop. The second drainage was little better. I was ready to continue along the rim, but Dianne pointed out an unlikely sand dune that reached up to the gentle slopes between the two drainages, and we knew we had a way in.

The dune led us into the left fork of the canyon, near its junction with the main fork. Looking up canyon, we could see puddles of water and thick grass. Based on our observations from the rim, we knew the main fork had trees growing in it further up. It was getting late, and our time to explore was limited. We decided to explore the narrows above the dryfall.

We headed down canyon, and the walls narrowed, though they were never deep. There was little vegetation in the canyon, mostly small bits of tumbleweed and dried clumps of grass that blew down from the rim. As we continued, we saw fresh prints. Not 5.10 Canyoneers this time, but some sort of ... cat?

Yes, a cat. It was about the size of a small dog/coyote, but with no claw marks. Since cats can retract their claws and dogs can’t, it was unlikely a dog print. We noticed the tracks headed downcanyon—the same direction we were heading—but strangely, there were no prints heading back up. So, the critter either clawed it’s way up the canyon walls to the rim, jumped down the dryfall into the pool, or, to our discomfort, was still in the canyon, stalking the short stretch of narrows between us and the dryfall. Dianne jokingly mentioned the possibility of the cat pouncing on us from above, and that led to several more ironic jokes about the name ‘Death Canyon.’

At the canyon’s narrowest point, we reached a steep drop. The canyon below the drop was very narrow—sideways walking only. Dianne stemmed above the drop to a series of three large chockstones.

She called back, “The third chockstone has some webbing!”

We didn’t have ropes but thought to check out what a previous group did. Dianne returned, and I stemmed out a ways. Sure enough, around the third chockstone was some webbing—it looked almost like a double length runner that was cut and then tied around the stone, perhaps with some blue webbing tied to extend it a bit, and with a quicklink hanging below. Dianne and I tried to look down the canyon to see where the rappel led, but the canyon turned a corner and we could not see. It was likely that the narrows were very short, and possible that the rappel point we saw could be used to rappel all the way to the base of the dryfall. Interesting. We headed back.

We never found the cat, and saw no place where it could claw its way up the canyon walls. It must have jumped down the dryfall. Curiously, many of our footprints were disappearing in the strong wind. How recent were those cat prints?

We returned to the base of the first drainage. Dianne hopped up it like it was a staircase, but I, being a little less sure, had to be coaxed.

We hiked along the rim and retraced our route from the dryfall. We slowly worked our way down the boulder problems and across the loose dirt–covered ledges. At one point, as Dianne downclimbed from the upper ledges, a handhold broke. Off balance and faced with a possible short fall onto jagged rocks, she jumped for it, and landed square on her feet. Nimble!

We hiked out. The wind was furious by now, and the Henry Mountains had been swallowed in storm. Occasional snow flurries fell upon us, and the sandy wind pummeled our faces. At the mouth of the canyon, we noticed a large bush, surrounded by a multitude of cow droppings. Curiously, many of the droppings were where cows had obviously been lying.

Back to the car, then back to camp. We reread an email from a friend who visited the area the week before. On his drive out, he noticed three cars—one with Colorado plates, two Utah—parked at the mouth of a canyon. From his description, and based on the footprints we saw, Death Canyon was the likely place. We joyfully guessed which canyoneers may have visited the week before.

Dianne made a great chili dinner, we both read—Dianne a book she brought with, me whatever reading material I could scrounge up—then early to sleep, ready for tomorrow’s adventure.

• Part III — Blarney Right Fork •
March 17, 2002

Early to bed, early to rise, makes one ready to descend a canyon at the crack of dawn.

When we woke, a number of dark clouds were overhead, traveling fast with the jet stream. The sun hadn’t hit those clouds yet, so they looked darker than they really were. Dianne and I ate a quick breakfast, packed our gear, and somewhat optimistically sprayed sunblock on in the cold morning air. Our destination, in celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day, would be the Left Fork of Blarney Canyon. Dianne mentioned that she wanted a pin–on clover leaf, to make the picture complete.

We drove the quarter mile from our campsite to the short dirt road that was Blarney’s trailhead.

Then, it was up, up, up. Up slickrock slopes, around small slickrock points. We quickly reached the sandstone cap atop the slickrock. We marveled at the view—the Henry Mountains were blanketed in clouds, and the van was visible far below.

Occasionally a cloud broke away and headed straight for us. The weather was very unsettled.

We followed the north rim of Blarney. We checked the topos frequently, and matched various landforms with the topographic lines. We skirted several short arms of Blarney, and soon came to the head of the left fork. Peering from the rim, we could see a rappel station below, marked with long lengths of blue, black and yellow webbing, but there was a short drop to be negotiated just to reach the anchor.

We studied the maps, and looked for a way to access the anchor below the rim. It involved a slide–down drop that would be very difficult to climb up. I volunteered, dropped my pack at the top for Dianne to hand down later, and slid down. A few minutes later, Dianne’s head appeared above.

“I think we should do the other fork. Weather is coming in, and while it probably won’t be severe, there are no rappels in the middle of the canyon right fork, unlike this one.”

She was right, of course. The only rappel in the right fork of Blarney is from the rim of the canyon down. Granted, once we pulled the rope—in either canyon—we would be committed, but if the weather did turn cold and wet, spending time in the middle of a dark canyon setting up a rappel was undesirable. Flash flood potential was low, but an elevated discomfort level potential was high.

Plus, our friend from last weekend descended the left fork, so we thought we’d descend the right fork and report on something new.

Dianne set up a quick anchor, and I donned my ascending gear. The drop was short—maybe 8 to 10 feet—but the bottom was overhanging, and there were no handholds.

I hooked in and quickly ascended. We repacked the rope, Dianne took a compass bearing, and we were off, headed for some small dirt hills and a curious boulder perched on top of the flat surrounding mesa cap.

We found a drop–in point for the right fork, a large bowl with no place to walk down. We referred to this as the ‘cereal bowl,’ as large red and orange rock flakes at the rim had broken off into the bowl and tumbled downcanyon, and this reminded us of soggy cornflakes strewn about. We picked one of a number of natural anchors, tied it off with tasteful rust–colored webbing and a single quicklink—still with a McGuckin’s Hardware pricetag attached—and rappelled 35 feet down into the cereal bowl. We were careful, as most of the rock around the rim of the cereal bowl was rotten. From the bottom of the cereal bowl, we packed up the rope and headed downcanyon.

The canyon quickly narrowed, which stood in stark contrast to the cereal bowl above. It descended quickly, amongst short, fluted drops, scalloped walls and convoluted twists and turns. We encountered a lot of fun chimneys and downclimbs, usually over boulders jammed in the canyon. Dianne and I took turns leading. The canyon was narrow, but never as narrow as Leprechaun the day before—there was very little stemming involved.

We reached a drop, 10 or 12 feet, that involved some scary downclimbing. Since we still had our harnesses on, and to be safe, I put Dianne on a belay and she climbed down. I then rappelled, using a large chockstone as an anchor, but the rope got stuck on the pull. A few good yanks and we set it free.

We continued, reaching the confluence of the right and left forks. Though patches of clouds were still threatening, some blue sky appeared and offered us a sunny—albeit windy—spot to eat lunch. We also removed our harnesses, and I noticed a spot on the leg loop where abrasion took its toll—nothing dangerous, but it put me one step closer to buying a new harness.

We enjoyed a simple walk out—through occasional pretty narrows—and we were back at the van. After a quick change into clean clothes, we headed home, hoping to beat what looked like a big snow storm over the mountains. Luckily, it turned out to be nothing, and we made it back to Boulder surprisingly early.

All in all, not a bad way to spend a weekend.


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© 2002 Mike Dallin